I thought the SDLP’s endorsement of the Sinn Fein motion in Dungannon Council in favour of the attempted murderer of a fellow Councillor was outrageous, stupid and insensitive. Perhaps, most of all, it was disappointing – because you cannot in general dislike the SDLP.
The SDLP’s events are always my favourite to attend of any party’s. Universally in my experience, their quizzes, dinners, barbecues and conferences are packed with highly interesting, engaging, humorous and talented people. The last one I was at I sat next to a Eurovision entry; the one before that with a former UTV journalist; the one before that with a good friend and Ulster-Scots broadcaster.
Thus, while indeed I may be partisan, I cannot wish the SDLP ill. It was not with delight that I tweeted about the party’s obvious divisions on Friday night, even though some members thought that – if it was, I would not have predicated the tweet.
The truth remains that the SDLP is denying obvious facts. It no longer has relevance; it continues to lose ground; and it is blatantly divided (even between Leader and Deputy Leader). It has factions within factions which sometimes make the Ulster Unionists look like beacons of unity. And it is blatantly divided because it continues to lose ground and it continues to lose ground because it no longer has relevance.
I have discussed before why it no longer has relevance – primarily, it is because it takes an impossible constitutional position and also because what distinguishes it from Sinn Fein is becoming decreasingly relevant (and, in any case, as the Dungannon vote showed, decreasingly evident). It could, at least, manage its divisions.
The last thing, therefore, it needed was for its Deputy Leader and Leader to get embroiled in the “Opposition” debate, inevitably on different sides of it (however much their members try to deny it).
The SDLP will not go into opposition: it would mean ceding an Executive seat to Unionists; it would mean loss of exposure for an MLA who needs it to hold his seat; and it would mean loss of relevance going into Westminster elections in which it must hold all its seats. Its Leader, Alasdair McDonnell, confirmed as much.
Of course, the SDLP should go into opposition: in order to attain relevance, a bit of time away from governing and instead regrouping as a clear social democratic alternative would give it the relevance it lacks, thus the potential to reverse its electoral fortunes, and thus the chance to unite under clear political and electoral objectives. That it would cede an Executive seat to Unionists does not matter in the long run; that it risks Assembly seats by so doing is part of the risk involved (it may work, it may not, but there is no point remaining stranded as is currently the case); and its Westminster seats are not under significant threat anyway. Its Deputy Leader, Dolores Kelly, had a point.
So now the SDLP will go the same way as the Ulster Unionists. Journalists, commentators, other political activists and even humble bloggers will write lots of copy about how and why the SDLP should or should not go into “Opposition”. This will merely open up the internal debate and thus the internal divisions which have now been made public. This will lead to a “Will they, won’t they” debate, with most people coming down on the side of “will”. And then they “won’t”… and they’ll look ridiculous… and then the internal recriminations will continue… and party loyalists will regret the day the subject was ever raised…
It is just so predictable. I don’t say that out of partisanship, I say it because it is predictable – as will become perfectly evident in the next few months.
A wise man once called it sleepwalking – although in this case I have no idea who is driving the train.